Backdate to July 30, 2018: After two weeks of travel through Chile (Santiago and San Pedro de Atacama) and Peru (Lima and Cusco), I finally settled into the volunteer role I will be holding for the next month in Cusco, Peru. Today was my first day at the Madre Teresa home for children and adults with disabilities. Elseline, the local team leader, gave all of the new volunteers a nice introduction of the program and what to expect before she accompanied me to my project. I learned how to navigate the Cuscenan bus system! There is a designated money-collector on each bus who is quite impatient if you do not have exact change. If that’s your only option, you have to tell them several stops in advanced so that they can get the adequate change ready for you. The bus seems to be normally quite crowded, and with the constant stop and go of the traffic and the taxis and pedestrians zipping through, it is impossible to get 0.80 soles out of your wallet without dropping all your coins or falling into somebody’s lap. So, note to self: get your change ready before boarding. As we got close to our destination, Elseline shouted, “Baja, baja!” and the bus came to a halt. The doors opened and we hurriedly exited. There was a short 5 minute hike up the slope of a nearby road until we reached the massive blue gates guarding the grounds of Madre Teresa. We knocked, and an elderly gentleman immediately opened the gates and let us enter. According to Elseline, this same old man is always tending to the gate. She showed me around the area, pointing to the pastel-green-walled Madre Teresa church to our right, the therapy facilities for men, women, and children, the kitchen, and the sleeping quarters. I was shocked to see that some of the beds were essentially cages - locked up on all sides for the most “dangerous” of children. This was a necessary evil, as sad as it was, as the house did not have enough manpower to individually supervise each child. Just a couple therapists, cooks, and nuns, and a handful of volunteers supported the 30 children and group of adults. More than a dozen wheel chairs were clustered in front of the children’s therapy room, as we had arrived in the midst of the massage and therapy session. We opened the door and I was immediately greeted by little Yovanny carrying his toy xylophone. He burst through the doors, grabbed my hand, and tugged me all the way back to the cooking quarters. I had to plead in Spanish to get him to come back with me (In English, “Come play with me over here!” “No, you come play with me over here!”). He was too cute. After some convincing, we made it back to the therapy room and Elseline introduced me to the therapist in charge, Clairi. She asked Elseline immediately if I spoke Spanish (in Spanish of course), to which she responded yes. The therapist let out a sigh of relief. So, I spent the next hour translating the therapist’s instructions to the rest of the team: first, massage all the joints and muscles using cream for several minutes to warm up their bodies; then, extend each joint as far as possible, just to the point of slight pain evidenced by the wince on their faces (most of them were non-verbal); then, hold for a few seconds before massaging the area to relieve the pain. She explained the specialty exercises for a few of the children with more specific needs (leg strength training, balance exercises). I learned the names of the children, which ones to keep my eyes on (some were very aggressive), and which ones needed to be approached in specific ways due lack of vision or other impairments.
I met Lucho, a 10 year old boy who I never saw smile for the entirety of the day. He would aggressively push other children around, though I would try to stop this as much as I could. I knelt beside him to give him a hug, and he immediately melted into my arms. Though he was non-verbal and had difficulty expressing himself, he had good control over his motor skills; he touched his nose to the palm of my hand - his way of connecting. If I took my attention away from him, he would slam his forehead on any nearby surface - wall, counter, railing, you name it. He had a large bruised swelling on his forehead from all of the hitting.
I met Vania, a beautiful girl who looked to be 2 or 3 years old. She grinned from cheek to cheek as I held her hand. She was able to move her hands and feet, but not yet able to walk or speak. Clairi told me that we need to work on her leg strength though walking and balancing exercises. I found out later she is actually 11 years old..
I met Martin, who, as I was sitting between him and Vania, had latched onto my sweater with an iron grip. He had gotten part of my skin too. I tried to pry his fingers open but it seemed like his grip was getting tighter and tighter. Another volunteer came to my help, and together we were able to detach him. He sat quietly, hunched over with his forehead near to the ground.
I met Matias, a sweet boy who suffered from severe scoliosis and muscular dystrophy, amongst other things. His limbs had become so stiffly crumpled close to his body, he had lost the ability to use his arms and legs. His mouth stayed slightly open. His eyes tracked my every movement as I approached him and put my hand on his arms to roll up his sleeves and begin the therapy massages.
I met Ruth. I think she melted my heart the first time I saw her. Her smile was absolutely infectious. You could tell she could understand everything, though she could not speak and her motor skills were not great. She would laugh when I’d joke, or be serious when I was explaining an exercise to her. That smile!
I met Angel Gabriel. His legs were permanently in a cross-legged position, and was almost entirely non-verbal other than in one aspect: he sang every word to the songs playing in the background during therapy!
I am still learning the rest of their names.. but I will get there!
After therapy, we loaded the children into their wheelchairs. This was a bit of a process as there is no hoist or crane to assist. Also, the wheelchairs had outdated names painted onto the back, as the children had outgrown their previous chairs, so we had to ask Clairi who goes where. As the children were scattered about a large room with various sized mattresses lining the floor and toys sprinkled everywhere, it was an obstacle course picking up each child and making the trek back to their designated chair. I was terrified of dropping them - tripping on a toy dinosaur, or getting my foot wedged between two adjacent mattresses, or getting knocked over by one of the higher functioning autistic kids who were running around, something felt bound to happen. I paired up with another volunteer to help, attempting to clear the path before lifting the child. We got everyone loaded, and rolled them over to the adjacent kitchen.
The food smelled absolutely delicious. The nuns and staff had prepared a brothy soup with chicken, potatoes and veggies, piping hot, full of delicious spices. For the children that could not chew, a special food packed with vitamins, minerals, and proteins was arranged and blended together for them. We each picked a child, grabbed their bowl, and began feeding them. Some were easier than others. I had chosen Martin, who sat at the small breakfast table for the children who were able to walk. His head stayed so hunched over that it would practically stay inside the food bowl if I hadn’t held him propped up with my left hand as I fed him with my right. Others would throw tantrums while eating, spitting out the food or clamping down on the spoon with their teeth. Most were relatively quiet, as their respective volunteer or “hermana” (nun) sloshed the food into their open mouths rapidly. Their meal ended with a cup of mate each, a tea useful in digestion.
After we fed the children, we wheeled them all in line by the restroom so that the Madre Teresa helpers and hermanas could brush their teeth. One by one, they would finish, and we wheeled them to the bedroom and tucked them into their respective beds.
All of that, and it was already 11:30. The day went by so fast, but I felt like we got a lot done. It’s tough to imagine what it would be like there without the help of the volunteers. There is an extraordinary amount of work for the regular staff, not to mention the heavy-lifting of the older children. Excited to see what the next four weeks will bring!
Note: Madre Teresa does not permit any photos taken of the children or adults in their care. Unfortunately for this reason I will not be posting any photos in my posts about Madre Teresa.